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9th Circuit Revives Challenge to Cyberstalking Law

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Richard Lee Rynearson, III, a retired Air Force major, is not the kind to let things go.

He got into a Facebook argument with his neighbor until it escalated to a legal skirmish. A Washington state judge granted a protective order against Rynearson, ordering him to leave his neighbor alone and to stop stalking him.

While the state case was pending, Rynearson challenged the state's cyberstalking law on free speech grounds in federal court. He lost, but of course the war was not over in Rynearson v. Ferguson.

Facebook Speech

Rynearson, who also goes by the name Richard Lee, regularly posts online about civil liberties issues. In 2016, he moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington, and began to follow the work of the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial.

Clarence Moriwaki founded the memorial and served on its board. He also lived next to Rynearson, who began the Facebook campaign against him over a political issue that led to federal court.

The trial judge dismissed Rynearson's complaint on abstention grounds, but the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. The appeals court said the judge should have exercised jurisdiction, even though the state court matter was pending.

"Although conduct in violation of that statute can be (and was, in Rynearson's case) a partial basis for issuing a protection order, the criminal statute's constitutionality does not bear on the validity of the state's protection orders or the procedures by which the state courts issue or enforce them," Circuit Judge Richard Clifton wrote for the unanimous panel.

Won the Battle

Even if the federal judge decides the cyberstalking statute is unconstitutional on remand, the appeals panel said, the state protective orders can still be enforced on other grounds.

So while Rynearson may win the battle in federal court, he may still lose the war with his neighbor in state court.

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